Yet another India-China stand-off, this one with alarming mass casualties on both sides, along the so-called and miscalled Line of Actual Control. So-called because the 3,488-km-long LAC doesn’t exist on maps or on the ground. Miscalled because the LAC has lost virtually all meaning in the western sector with China asserting sovereignty over the entire Galwan Valley region. Sadly, most of India’s political and media establishment is busy discussing the ominous new manifestation of a longstanding boundary dispute, and simply refusing to focus on how to resolve the dispute itself. When a disease is not cured permanently, temporary palliatives won’t work.
Should India and China, both nuclear-armed, keep their boundary dispute unresolved forever? Should we not, as dictated by the wisdom of our two ancient civilisations, decide to co-exist peacefully by harmonising our territorial claims through mutual concessions? As critical as these questions are, there is another: Was there a time when India and China could have followed such a wise course and clinched a boundary settlement?
Fact-based historical memory is woefully weak in India. And at a time when Prime Minister Narendra Modi is being urged by his jingoistic followers to adopt a “no compromise” stance on the LAC, they will surely refuse to examine possibilities in the past when India and China could have ended this dispute with a give-and-take approach, but failed to do so. The best such chance to achieve it was in 1960 — both in the western sector (Aksai Chin in Ladakh, where the current crisis has erupted) and also in the eastern sector (Arunachal Pradesh). China offered us a workable solution. But India rebuffed the offer. A historic opportunity was missed mainly because of Jawaharlal Nehru’s weakness, vacillation and lack of foresight, but also due to the then Opposition’s clamorous pressure on the prime minister to make “no compromises” on India’s territory and sovereignty. Result: The Chinese war of aggression in 1962. India’s defeat in that war has cast such a long shadow that we still cannot muster the necessary clarity or commitment to address the boundary question.
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The war was not inevitable. 1960 could have averted 1962. This is how. At Nehru’s invitation, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai visited India in April 1960. “I have come here to seek a solution and not to repeat arguments,” he said. Before his visit, the two PMs had discordantly argued their respective claims through several long letters. Zhou offered, obviously with the approval of Chairman Mao, a “package deal” for a final settlement — China would accept India’s control over today’s Arunachal Pradesh, which meant its de facto recognition of India’s jurisdiction upto the McMahon Line, if India accepted China’s control over Aksai Chin. (Remember: Until 1954, Indian maps showed the entire boundary in the western sector as “undefined”.) “Our friendship is the most important thing,” he told RK Nehru, India’s former ambassador to China. “Non-settlement of this problem will harm us both.”
Zhou spent 20 hours in talks with PM Nehru, but returned to Beijing empty-handed. Why did India reject his offer? In the answer to this question lies a salutary lesson relevant to ending the current standoff in Ladakh — and also to the successful conclusion of the ongoing India-China talks through their Special Representatives (who have met 22 times so far since 2003) to solve the boundary row. The media and Opposition leaders (including Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who, subsequently as PM, changed his views on this matter) were stridently opposed to conceding any land to China. Historian Srinath Raghavan, in his illuminating paper “Nehru — Zhou Enlai Summit of 1960: A Missed Opportunity?”, writes: “Nehru was pushed to a position where his diplomatic manoeuvrability was severely curtailed. Henceforth he had to assess constantly what the political marketplace would bear and adopt only those policies that could be conceivably sold to the public.” Nehru himself voiced his fear: “If I give them (Chinese) that (Aksai Chin), I shall no longer be Prime Minister of India — I will not do it.”
Had Nehru accepted Zhou’s compromise-based solution — and he had the power and stature to convince the people to accept such a bargain in India’s vital long-term interest — four consequences would have followed. One, India and China, after some negotiations, could have fixed the boundary permanently. Two, that outcome itself would have prevented a war. Three, there would have been no recurring face-offs along a disputed LAC of the kind we are witnessing even in 2020. Four, and not many people know this, China in 1960 had even hinted that, “as part of an overall settlement”, it would accept India’s sovereign claim on Jammu & Kashmir (minus Aksai Chin) vis-à-vis Pakistan. Beijing those days attached far greater importance to its ties with India. Indeed, because of Pakistan’s closeness to the US, it had cold-shouldered the latter’s proposal for boundary talks for a year, and inked an agreement, in 1963, only after its relations with India nosedived.
A lot, good and bad, has happened on both sides of the Himalayas since that failed summit in 1960. But India’s political parties (especially the BJP and Congress) and the public should ask themselves: In any future resolution of the India-China boundary dispute, can India secure a better outcome than what Zhou had proposed to Nehru? Can India ever drive China out of Aksai Chin (or Pakistan out of PoK)? And can China ever do the same to India in Arunachal Pradesh? This being the case, can a “no compromise” stance by either India or China guarantee tranquillity, much less comprehensive cooperation, between the world’s two largest civilisational-nations?
For Modi, the choice is stark. Will he repeat Nehru’s blunder, risk an unwinnable war with China, and end his premiership without solving the India-China boundary dispute? Or will he, without worrying about the “political marketplace”, and without relying on Trump or his successor to come to India’s aid, show the courage to swing the public opinion in favour of a compromise-dependent transformation of the LAC into a BAC (Boundary of Assured Control)?
This article first appeared in the print edition on June 19 under the title “Biting the bullet”. The writer was an aide to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee
June 19, 1980, Forty Years Ago: Budget 1980-81